"Black Like Them? “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” & Black Elite Nostalgia Cinema" by Nicole Anderson Cobb, PhD
Black Like Them?
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
Black Elite Nostalgia Cinema
By Nicole Anderson Cobb, PhD
Perhaps, it is all just too much. I should have spaced some of it out. I should have gone to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler earlier….taken a pause…then watched the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington coverage last weekend…taken a pause….and THENNNN I’d be in much better shape for the President’s upcoming 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington address.
Unfortunately, because I wasn’t more mindful of my low tolerance for Civil Rights re-enactors---now I’m just bloated with it and cranky and aggravated about this Civil Rights-A-Palooza.
It began two weeks ago. On every morning show, cable news outlet and late night interview couch (or table), they all sat there poking my proverbial bear: the cast of Lee Daniels’ The Butler making their case, forcing our hands, beating us over the head with the importance of THIS film, THAT moment, THOSE times. And yet, it all annoyed me. Something about it felt too forced, too earnest, too uncomplicated.
And don’t get me wrong, this story---of the African American servant class---IS MY STORY. I am the child of two African Americans who were servants as teenagers in Jim Crow Mississippi. My mother was a maid and my father was a groundsman for an all white golf course before they both went to college and left the south.
Ironically, my father was injured by one of the lawnmowers while cutting grass at this segregated club. Daddy nearly bled to death because he couldn’t go to the closest hospital to the golf course---a whites-only hospital. Daddy had to be rushed to the nearest Negro hospital in town. Thus, he physically bore a long ugly scar on his right leg and the pain of that humiliation his entire life.
So I understand the sacrifices made and indignities suffered by our servant foreparents. I REALLY DO GET IT. However, Winfrey’s particular emphasis on the fact that this was an “African American MIDDLE CLASSSSSSS family that we don’t get to see very often”, the fact that it's “a looooooove story” and “a film about two different ways of protesting” just grated on me.
Why? Because her boosterism of this film is just the latest round in Winfrey’s toxic cocktail of mixed messaging to Black folks. The story of African American servants is indeed honorable, but in this case, Winfrey’s motivations are fraught with duplicity.
One minute Winfrey is celebrating African American marriage in the context of Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the next minute she sniggling with Jamie Fox about the poor dumb slobs trapped within the constricting, archaic institution. One minute her OWN network is devoting huge blocks of summer programming to the plight of fatherless children across America. Yet, during the commercial break, the network is promoting “The Haves And Have Nots” as the “breakout HIT of the summer”--- a series focusing on toxic relationships of all kinds with specific focus on horrifically failed parental-child relationships. In one breath, she honors the Black middle class in “The Butler” and in the next breath, she represents the Black working class as a band of goofy simpleton in “Love Thy Neighbor”---which is a shame because the cast is talented enough to produce more challenging content.
Thus, I am utterly confused by Winfrey’s messaging at this point---which makes her participation in and promotion of “Lee Daniels The Butler” ring hollow for me. I get tired of being manipulated by Black elites and their correctives for how Black folk must act, dress, think, speak and behave, and then guilted into supporting their pet projects.
It is the equivalent of being “Dixie-Chicked”. Only the Black elite call to action is “just shut up and consume” or “just shut up and act nice in front of all these good white folks” (like my Nana used to warn me when white company pulled up in her gravel driveway in Tougaloo, MS.).
However---despite all of my obvious baggage---I relented. I heeded the call of the Butler's gang of Black elites---on the heels of their opening week box office victory---and drug myself out to see Lee Daniels The Butler. Unfortunately, despite the media-blitz, the raves, the great box office figures, the Oscar buzz, I found myself dulled by it.
It was OK….not groundbreaking or life changing, but simply OK. As the story unfolded before me, it suffered from a focus on breadth over depth. Forest was lovely and Oprah was interesting and their love story read as authentic enough, even moving at times.
Unfortunately, the pacing felt slow. Too much of the acting felt hollow and filled underdeveloped characters and the historical processes felt devoid of fire or intensity---with the exception of the brilliant lunch counter scene.
The film is also COMPLETELY ABSENT of any serious examination of the years since King for Black Americans in America. Yes, the Reagans are present and attention given to apartheid in South Africa, but the film COMPLETELY sidesteps the consequences of the War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, AIDS, the Gulf Wars, hyper-incarceration, gentrification, gun crime and Black depopulation across urban America. We leap from the Black Panthers to Mandela to Obama with no sense of what Black folk struggled with on the ground in America these last 30 years.
Hence, during this summer filled with Martin King and Trayvon Martin, Civil rights and wrongs, marches and rallies too often called for the sole purpose of marching and rallying, I am left wondering who Lee Daniels The Butler is for exactly? Who is its target audience?
It has been argued that this story is for generations of younger Americans “who don’t know this history”. As a PhD in History and with family connections to the film's themes, I reflected on the Gaines family. Yet, I left the theater with a heavy heart considering all that each character in the film had sacrificed for America. In so doing, I thought more broadly about what Black folks in general had to sacrifice IN America and FOR America…and ARE STILL a people menaced BY America.
Furthermore, the film read to me like a love letter from Black elites to White America. A love letter reminding them of their cherished Blacks, their tolerable Blacks and martyred Blacks of the American past.
Thus, 50 years later, Lee Daniels’ The Butler reminds America that grappling with noble yet despised Blacks, March On Washington Blacks, aged and dying Blacks--- are much easier to deal with than the Blacks that Whites (and Black elites) must contend with in the here and now.
Nicole Anderson Cobb, PhD, is the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICHV) Outreach Coordinator for Central Illinois. She is also the author of TANGLED, an award-winning play that examines gun violence in Chicago and the convening playwright of The GunPlay(s) Competition 2013-2014, a competition focused on plays that examine gun violence in American life.
Nicole Anderson-Cobb, PhD, Educator, Playwright & Founder of Samaritan Road Productions is the author of the SRP blog "Writing On The Go"